With its beautiful rivers and lakes and exceptional scenery, Wisconsin is full of unique venues for just about any type of event. From car museums and riverfront event centers to a quaint European-style cafe, a 19th-century lighthouse and a nature preserve, there is a Wisconsin venue to fit every group’s eclectic tastes.
Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside is a 185-acre nature preserve on the shores of Lake Michigan. Its main mission is to protect the area’s natural ecosystems and restore native wildlife populations. As part of that, the center has a raptor program that educates visitors about the importance of wildlife and habitat conservation with the help of birds that cannot to be released back into the wild.
Meeting planners that want to host a meeting or event on the property can offer their attendees a tour of the raptor center, where they meet owls, hawks, falcons and bald eagles up close, or bring in a raptor handler to show off one or two of these majestic animals. Groups can take guided hikes through the property or participate in a high-tech treasure hunt that has them searching the property for geocache sites. One of the highlights of the property is the Reptile Amphibian Conservation Area, which covers 38.5 acres and provides important habitat for spring peepers, blue-spotted salamanders, Blanding’s turtles and prairie crayfish.
Groups can book events of 10 to 225 guests, depending on the room they rent in the Dorothy K. Vallier Environmental Learning Center, a Gold LEED-certified building on the property. The nature center is about 15 minutes from Milwaukee, overlooking Lake Michigan.
“It is a little oasis not far from the city,” said Jessica Buehler, rental manager.
Celebrations on the River
The backyard at Celebrations on the River, an event hall perched on the Black River, which runs through La Crosse, “is nothing short of magical,” said Adam Etrheim, general manager and partner at the property. “It is literally on the river. We have gorgeous woods in the back wrapped in LED lights.”
The event center has three distinct venues in the same location, and each has a different theme. Center Court is a banquet hall that can accommodate more than 450 people and features breathtaking views of the river, gardens and outdoor patio.
River Park is a wedding, banquet and special-event venue that offers modern rustic charm with wood grain trim and a tiered ceiling covered in LED lights. “It is a very woodsy, Wisconsin-ish type of room,” Etrheim said. The Three Seasons room connects the River Park room with the outdoors. River Park can host groups of up to 350 people standing and 275 seated. It also overlooks the river, woods and gardens and offers state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment and custom LED lights throughout.
Serenity Hall is excellent for smaller gatherings of about 150 people. The ceiling is covered in crystal chandeliers, and a large stage overlooks a built-in dance floor. Groups that want to take advantage of the outdoors can rent out the patio for cocktail parties, summer picnics or employee appreciation events. There are fire pits and a huge open space where groups of up to 500 can play backyard games.
Celebrations caters its own events, offering everything from breakfast, buffets and plated dinners to late-night snacks and desserts.
Café Hollander Mequon
Ten years ago, the owners of Café Hollander Mequon were big travelers. They toured Europe, including Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Belgium, and fell in love with it. Their cafe in Mequon has a Netherlands vibe, sporting an open-air concept, garage doors that open to the outside and bicycles hanging from the walls and ceilings to pay homage to Amsterdam’s bicycle culture. Fun murals grace the walls, along with antique tin signs, lanterns and tons of photos. Visitors can grab an espresso and a snack or sample the Belgian-style brews available over lunch or dinner.
The theme replicates the neighborhood cafe culture of The Netherlands with exposed brick and indoor and outdoor seating areas. The cafe does have event spaces that can be rented, including a private atrium on the first floor that can be opened up to the restaurant or closed off as a separate venue with doors that open onto the patio. That space can host smaller groups of about 30 people. Larger groups of up to 90 people can rent the second-floor loft. Larger groups can rent the loft, as well as the outdoor balconies and rooftop spaces, to accommodate an additional 40 to 50 guests. A full restaurant buyout can host celebrations and holiday parties for up to 200 people.
“In this current environment where people are looking for more open-air spaces and more intimate and smaller groups, it is a perfect fit for their needs,” said Molly Canan, director of events for the Lowlands Group, which owns Café Hollander Mequon.
Automobile Gallery and Event Center
William “Red” Lewis, the man who invented the touchless car wash more than 50 years ago, founded the Automobile Gallery in Green Bay in 2016. He developed a love of cars at an early age, turning that love into quite an extension of lovingly restored vehicles. When he was thinking about retiring a few years ago, Lewis asked his family what he should do with his car collection.
“No one wanted the responsibility,” said Kathryn Gardner, director of administration and events for the Automobile Gallery. “Nobody wanted to own the cars.”
So Lewis decided to start a nonprofit car museum in a former Cadillac dealership he bought in downtown Green Bay. The museum opened with an initial donation of cars by Lewis. Since then, Lewis and others have donated cars to the collection, which now numbers 110 vehicles. Automobile enthusiasts enjoy hosting events in the attached event center, which can seat 160 people, or hosting corporate board meetings in the glass-walled executive corporate conference room that looks out over the showroom floor. If groups rent out the entire museum, the facility can accommodate groups as large as 750 people.
Wind Point Lighthouse
Built in 1880, the historic Wind Point Lighthouse stands 108 feet tall. Its kerosene “Aladdin’s lamp” and a third-order Fresnel lens was lit for the first time November 15, 1880, and although the kerosene lamp is gone, the structure continues on as a fully automated Lake Michigan lighthouse.
The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and the village of Wind Point purchased adjacent property to preserve the grounds from future development. In 1984, the tower was reopened for tours as part of Racine’s 150th-anniversary celebration. In 1997, the Coast Guard transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the Village of Wind Point, asking them to maintain it as a historic landmark. As part of that stewardship, the village rents out the grounds and the Village Hall for weddings, corporate meetings and events.
Normally, the property can host groups of up to 150 people, and groups that book the south lawn get free use of the Village Hall with their rental. Groups can also book private guided tours of the lighthouse tower. Now, however, because of COVID-19, the keepers of the lighthouse are not renting out the Village Hall. But groups can still rent the south lawn at a limited capacity, and the park grounds are open every day of the year, so visitors are welcome to use the picnic tables, benches, beach and gardens.